What Does The Word Custody Really Mean?

The word “Custody” is used to describe (a) the time each parent will spend with the child(ren) and (b) how decision making authority affecting the welfare of the child(ren) is to be allocated between the parents.  Whether or not any particular pattern of time-sharing or allocation of parental decision-making is preferable in each custody dispute depends ultimately upon someone’s view of the "best interests of the child."

Keep Your Children's Basic Need In Mind

The word "custody" creates tension in every discussion about divorce. We persist, perhaps due to the inertia of history, in using possessive terminology to describe our relationships to children. The “possessive” connotations of “having custody” are directly contradictory to the perceptions of co-parenting most mental health professionals and judges would encourage. Viewed from this perspective, the distinction between the terms “legal”, “physical”, "sole," "split," "shared" or "joint" custody are less important.  They all loosely describe alternative variations of the same complex series of relationships within the divorced family.

You Are Not Winning

Your thinking about your child’s “best interests” needs to focus on these two concerns. By doing so, you can avoid the “terminology trap”, where the word “custody” becomes emotionally synonymous with “control” or “winning”.   No matter how much the topic is dissected and discussed, and no matter how often we are self-educated, educated and reeducated not to do so, one parent having “custody” infers a “competitive edge” over the other parent. By trying to focus on the content, not the terminology, you might better be able to devise a pattern of time-sharing and decision-making which might make the most sense for your children. Perhaps the “competitive edge” of possession is inevitable. As long as the parents’ own relationship is dominated by a struggle for power, and as long as having “custody” is needed by a parent for their own reasons, not those of the children, the term “custody” will retain its possessory connotations, because that kind of parent chooses to believe it to be true.

Is Possession Nine Tenths of The Law?

Try telling a parent considering whether or not to leave the children and move to a new residence that this old adage is not true! Time always appear to be on the side of the person “in control” or “in possession” of the children. Whether or not it is true, or at least whether or not it is as true as divorcing parents think it to be true, doesn’t matter at the early stage of the process. What a parent chooses to believe will become the basis for their subsequent actions. All too often, each action leads, as they say, to an equal and opposite reaction. It is within that predictable pattern that the parent’s original beliefs become self-fulfilling prophesies.  The consequences for the children wrapped up in that struggle are not always the result of any correctible inadequacies of “The Law” or of the “Legal Process”. They are the result or the thoughts and decision-making of the parents. The same parents are the type who must either blame each other, the legal system or their lawyer for what they choose to see as their unwarranted dilemma. The pathology of blame probably made a lasting relationship between the couple impossible, and at this stage of the disintegration of their relationship, blame serves only to allow them to ignore the consequences  of their own conduct.


It is usually far more constructive to frame the issues about children as “co-parenting” after divorce.  As I use that term, many will fall off the ship, because the term “co-parenting” seems to imply a either a sentimental and “pie in the sky” notion about the ability of two people who would prefer not to be in one another’s company to cooperate - - or it implies a bias on my part toward the notion that the “involved participation” of both parents is always a preferred solution. I believe neither. “Co-parenting” simply implies that after our divorce, like before our divorce, we will both be involved. Exactly how we will share this task depends upon many factors. A father who is abusive and has little contact, or even supervised contact, with his children, is in fact a “co-parent” as much as the actively involved father who shares significant time and is aware of what is going on in the lives of his children. The uninvolved father’s decision to do nothing is a statement. We may be different kinds of co-parents, but WE HAVE NO CHOICE. We should coin a phrase to describe our objectives only after we fully understand those objectives.

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